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Excellence & Equity: How To Make Change Happen At Scale? Pasi Sahlberg at HundrED Summit 2018

Pasi Sahlberg shares top insights on how to make education innovations scale.

When Pasi Sahlberg moved to Australia with his young sons, he was asked: “Where are you going to find a good school for your children?”

In typically Finnish fashion, he replied: “What are you talking about, the best school is the one that’s around the corner!” But sadly, he was told, it doesn’t work like that in Australia. So, he jokes, “I’m going to send my kids to the nearest public school and then do what any academic researcher would do, and do a social experiment on my own kids. Interview them and write a paper about the public school system in Australia.”

All jokes aside, Sahlberg has a point: the best school really should be the one around the corner. Could innovations help to make that a reality around the world?

Pasi Sahlberg is a Finnish educator and professor of education policy at the Gonski Institute for Education, University of New South Wales in Sydney. What interests Sahlberg is not just identifying innovations, but paying attention to how change happens. And as he notes, it’s a completely different thing to change one school, compared to changing the whole system.

“We are in a situation where everybody is talking about change. People say I love change, but you go first! Nobody wants to change, we all want everyone else to do that.”

“We often know, particularly in education, that the more things change the more they stay the same. You can work hard with the system and the harder you work, the harder the system pushes back and it seems like nothing is changing. The world is changing and everything around us is going upside down, and that’s why what we do with schools needs to be different than before.”

But we know enough already about how things happen, the challenge is that we tend to forget or ignore what has gone before. This can be a particular problem when working in innovation – looking to the future and trying to solve the problems of tomorrow, without looking at the past.

“I started as a school teacher and then went to research, I thought I knew everything there was to know about these things. I very much ignored the past, the authors and scholars that went before I understand I was wrong. The things I thought we invented were known far before, I just didn’t have the patience to read what was going on.”

With this in mind, Sahlberg urges us to read some of the most influential scholars in the field of education, particularly when it comes to the question of how to scale success around the world. He showcases some of the most prominent ideas from the past 50 years, including those of James Coleman, Ron Edmonds, Bruce Joyce, and Seymour B Sarason. The 2000s, he notes, have been “a time when we stopped looking at educational research, most people were focused on statistical conclusions like PISA”.

For Sahlberg, the work of Seymour B Sarason stands out. “He is the most significant person in this field, ever. Don’t try to put any innovation to scale before you read one of his books.”

He shares five elements of Sarason’s work that “should raise your appetite to go back to your library and read any of his books, really”.

The first is that every school has a culture – values, beliefs, relationships between people. If we’re going to change the schools, we need to approach the schools in a way where we can change the culture. But unfortunately, we don’t always look at schools in this way.

Secondly, we should ask ourselves, what is the ultimate purpose of schooling? There’s no one purpose, but if Sarason were forced to pick one, for his own children, he would say that the purpose of schooling is for children to learn more about themselves and raise their curiosity to learn more about school and the people around them. Often when we don’t know the purpose of school, our innovations won’t go further.

Whatsmore, the system is intractable; the harder you push the change, the harder the system pushes back. It doesn’t make sense to force or mandate innovation.

Added to this, Sarason asserts that there can be no student learning without teacher learning. We cannot have conditions for productive learning unless we have the same conditions for teachers in every school.

And finally, the democratic principle is undermined in schools. Engaging people in decision making is often undermined or even worse ignored. This needs to change.

To close the talk, Sahlberg urges us to pay respect to the past – "the more you innovate, the more you have to turn back and see what has gone before. Look at the scholars of the past". He highlights that we need to make room for new ideas (we cannot change schools and propose new ideas, without first taking something away). And finally, something that HundrED believes passionately, we must make the change with young people, listen to them and give them a voice. We cannot assume that we know what will work for them.

Like what you've heard so far? Find a playlist of videos from the HundrED Summit here